My post yesterday sparked a lot of great discussion about Blizzard and balancing that I think are worth looking at in detail and via comparison to other games – in this case, FFXIV.
World of Warcraft has, undoubtedly, nearly always had balancing problems with the viability of talents, abilities, and whole classes. One of the recurring themes of every expansion for over a decade now has been a discussion over which classes and specs are meta, which talent choices are absolutely necessary for top performance, and things like best in slot lists and group composition guides.
Regardless of how far back you go in WoW, some of these things exist, and while a large part of it is down to a modern access to information on what things are popular in the meta, a lot of MMO’s have had BiS lists, group comp guidelines, and other such information before it was commonly referred to as “meta.”
Something that has interested me over the last year, where I’ve really been more of a Final Fantasy XIV player than a WoW one, is that FFXIV dodges a lot of this and is perceived as a fairly well balanced game. Here is, for example, a 99th percentile log comparison between the DPS classes of FFXIV on the current endgame raid encounter – Eden’s Verse Refulgence (Savage).
Looking at this, there are still clear winners and losers in a way – a range of around 2,000 DPS separates the top and bottom, which is a gap of over 10%. However, the bottom job in the list (Bard) is a DPS spec with a large number of raid buffs. Dancer and Ninja are in the same boat, where they tend to have lower DPS totals because they offer buffs to their raid groups. This seems like a big gap overall, but let’s look at the same for Ny’alotha on Mythic in WoW.
On the same metrics, the gap between top and bottom is around 33%. Many of the specs on the bottom of the ranking don’t have a similar group utility to the Bard/Dancer/Ninja in FFXIV, meaning that they simply do less damage. If you look within classes with multiple DPS specs, you can see some clear issues too. If you’re a hunter, but you don’t like the pet, you’re going to take a 14,000 DPS cut to play Marksmanship and drop the pet. The top two specs overall have sharp increases over the specs beneath them even at this level of play.
Now, there is a tradeoff for this. WoW is not a particularly well-balanced game, and similar charts I could pull for any point in time in the game’s history would show something similar. However, WoW offers choices within these. While the spec choice is the discussion in the chart, each spec has different combinations of talents, azerite traits, and essences. WoW, within each of these bars, represents the aggregate results of a number of choices made by players – choices available to them through normal gameplay or earned via chasing of goals like Essences.
FFXIV doesn’t really have that. If I play White Mage, as I tend to most of the time for roulette content, and in a raid scenario run into another White Mage, the likelihood is that both of us are going to be performing very similarly. We have some choices via gear expression (do you use 480 crafted armor or normal Eden’s Verse gear? Do you use Edenchoir gear or Augmented Crystarium gear at the Savage level? How have you melded within that gear? What DPS opener do you use? How do you manage your oGCD spells? How do you manage refreshing your Dia DoT on the boss? There aren’t that many questions, and while there is a tactical depth to be had in optimizing rotations (especially for classes that can weave dependent on connection latency), materia melding (being a healer that melds Direct Hit, a pure DPS increase with no healing benefit, which is a correct route in some cases!), and gearing (White Mage this tier even has a Piety set for the first time in a while because MP management can be a concern with certain gear combinations) – FFXIV presents a smaller subset of questions that can be metagamed.
In truth, one of the things I think FFXIV does particularly well is this balance. It doesn’t feel more constrained or less interesting to me than WoW’s does, but it arrives at a much better spot in terms of overall balance.
Blizzard’s way of thinking as captured the last several WoW expansions is fundamentally different, and I think wrong in some ways. Blizzard’s response to metagaming becoming more popular in WoW is to make a series of choice gridlocks, where the “logic” of the move is that the game offers so many different permutations you can choose that even imbalanced choices are, in theory, ironed out by the fact that you can make other choices that balance against that issue. The problem is that, in practice, they also tend to constrain the mechanisms delivering these choices to you such that you don’t really have gridlock in any meaningful sense and there are clear winners and losers. Azerite armor, for example, had a pretty big list of traits, but the problem was that certain traits were only available on gear from specific sources, and the original layout of Azerite gave precious little space to allow players to choose a sub-optimal trait they liked when it meant giving up something that substantially boosted their performance. At this point, the game has “remedied” that by making Ny’alotha raid gear drop a static set of traits across the board, so that you pretty much always have access to a top 2 trait on a piece of armor and have a few other slots where you can make some limited choices like defensive slots.
In Shadowlands, the covenant is this in theory again. Soulbinds and covenant abilities are balanced differently against one-another, but in some cases, it seems like there are clear winners and losers and so Blizzard just adds another meta layer onto the game (provided things make it to live such as they are today). Soulbinds, to my experience in beta, have this a little less because the non-conduit trait options are all pretty low tier and tend to buff the covenant signature ability rather than the class one. Pelagos of the Kyrian has given my level 60 testing DH three different boosts to the Phials of Serenity and Steward, and a single Mastery buff tied to my class ability usage. These abilities are fine, but Blizzard’s idea here is that these balance against one another such that it doesn’t really matter, but in practice, there will still be a theorycrafted best/worst and that will shape the perception of the system.
Talents are perpetually a case of this as well. Blizzard has, more or less, never really truly balanced talents. They’ve done well enough sometimes that most tiers have situational choices or are flavor so much that it doesn’t matter which one you pick, but when a choice is meaningless, that doesn’t mean the choice itself being there has value.
One of the interesting things about this comparison, to me, is that it highlights something I didn’t really realize or expect to think until I did it – FFXIV offers me almost none of the choices WoW does in terms of building my character in an RPG way, and for the gameplay model both games largely share (endgame-focused, balance-obsessed as a result), FFXIV feels better for it. To improve my DPS in heroic Ny’alotha on my DH, I took the Demon’s Blades talent so that I could improve my DPS (with a passive effect replacing an active button choice…) and it worked. It worked, and I could feel my performance improving, which made me happy, but I also hate that playstyle. It absolutely sucks. I used to think it could be good for new players trying the class because it simplifies things, but in truth, it decreases your APM and makes things more boring. In high end content, though, it improved my DPS a lot, sadly, and so for the fun of clearing content, I had to make a choice to have a higher personal boredom with the rotation for the sake of higher DPS and the fun of being able to clear more content. The fun of clearing content and that feeling did mostly offset the boredom, but then in the time between raids, it felt boring to play with no benefit.
FFXIV doesn’t let you make a boring choice, provided the developers do their jobs and make each job feel fun to play, and to their credit, all of the jobs in the game are, to my taste at least, fun to play. There are some that are clunky (Monk stances come to mind, as does the general gameplay flow of healing as an Astrologian in Shadowbringers) but that clunk can be ironed out relatively well by learning the flow of things. Some WoW specs have fundamentally weird rotations and gameplay that doesn’t offset via choices you can make. Shadow Priest, for example, has a very tightly wound rotation around Voidform, and while it is capable of high DPS when played to a high degree of precision (see the above chart and where they rank in Mythic!) but it also mercilessly punishes those who are learning, and with each expansion it has existed as a mechanic, it has been tweaked and tortured such that the flow of play changes sharply. FFXIV has revamps and reworks too – tanks just got huge reworks in Shadowbringers that brought a variety of changes to all of the existing tank jobs – but these tend to remove jank mechanics in favor of better designs, in my opinion. The tank example removed the need for stance dancing for tanks, replacing their tank stance (prior to 5.x, tank stance both increased Enmity generation and reduced damage taken and dealt) and their DPS stance with a toggle of tank stance on/off with the tank stance solely increasing Enmity generation, and resulting in potency buffs for their DPS abilities to compensate. Tanks now do more damage more of the time and their gameplay is focused on maintaining their DPS rotations while cycling damage reduction cooldowns and keeping a run on track.
So I guess that leads to an open-ended question I have thinking about all of this – if you could get a WoW with a top-to-bottom DPS balance of 10% total gap in exchange for losing the choice systems of development, do you take that deal? The tricky thing to me, is that I don’t really know what my answer is. Sure, I like the balance of FFXIV and that having all my jobs geared to the same level means I can rely on a baseline performance that is predictable so long as I play well, but at the same time, it kind of feels almost less like an RPG for it. WoW feels like an RPG, in that it has these choice systems that allow you to build a character via talents into one of 2,187 different builds for that specialization, and then on top of that to have different permutations of Azerite traits, Essences, and gearing, and in Shadowlands, you’ll have combinations of covenant choice, soulbind choice, and conduits, but these systems also introduce the incredibly large possibility space that Blizzard clearly cannot manage as well as we’d all like. In theory, I’d love to see what WoW would look like if talents were simply baked in as leveling rewards and you eventually got everything and a Havoc DH is constituted of a full set of abilities that matches with every other DH and can be directly balanced against that for other classes and specs. At the same time though, part of me enjoys WoW jank, enjoys playing contrarian and picking sub-optimal builds while maintaining enough gameplay proficiency to participate with my guild in heroic content, and playing with how you tweak and optimize for different modes of content.
Going forward, though, Blizzard clearly needs to start thinking of new approaches to how to manage metagaming. Trying to counter it with choice, while a nice sentiment, has failed so much for them that it should be clear new ideas are necessary.